Carving a niche outside Louisville: Hoosier Bat Co. finds success with Major Leaguers, amateur baseball players

A three-piece wooden bat David Cook developed in 1989 became popular among professional baseball players, but ended up nearly devastating his upstart manufacturing company.

Major League Baseball banned the bat just a year later after what Cook contends was a fierce lobbying effort from his largest rival, Louisville Slugger.

The bat-made of ash, hickory and maple-is fused by finger jointing and remains in use at the amateur levels. The durability of the bat rivals that of an aluminum model, Cook said.

“I had something that was better than what anybody else had,” he said. “I think Louisville thought we’d be gone in a couple of years, but we’re still here.”

Indeed, the Hoosier Bat Co. in Valparaiso is a hit with many big-league players, including slugger Frank Thomas, who is approaching 500 home runs, and Magglio Ordonez, right fielder for the American League champion Detroit Tigers. Former Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa used a Hoosier Bat to smash his 66th homer in 1998.

Following the ban of his three-piece bat, Cook, 65, introduced an all-ash bat in 1991 that is largely responsible for the company’s success. While many wooden bats are ash, his are made from a superior type, he maintained.

The company manufactured 42,000 bats in 2005 and should make 50,000 this year. The volume ranks Hoosier Bat Co. among the five-largest producers in the country in a crowded market, Cook said. There were just six competitors when he and his wife, Debbie, entered the fray in 1989. That number since has mushroomed to 87.

Cook insists the number doesn’t intimidate him.

“We just try to give quality and service, and the [players] will attest to that,” he said.

Of those models, only about 20 are licensed for major-league use, MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said. The licensing process used to be much less rigorous, but became more stringent about four years ago due to increasing liability concerns from breaking bats. Manufacturers now must carry insurance on their product.

Many producers are making maple bats in an attempt to capitalize on the 73 home runs Barry Bonds hit in 2001 using that type. Maple is heavier than ash, so the barrels normally need to be cupped out at the end to make them lighter. The hollowing out, however, causes the bats to crack easier.

They’re more expensive, too, costing $65 each. Ash bats run as much as $50, Cook said.

The Chicago native’s entrance into the bat-making industry stems from his playing days in high school and college, and ultimately his job as a scout for the revered New York Yankees.

How he arrived at that position is a story in itself. Cook became familiar with Valparaiso as a youngster visiting his grandparents there and made it his permanent home in 1967. For years, he ran a restaurant where Yankees owner George Steinbrenner would dine while visiting his children attending the nearby Culver Military Academy.

As they became friends, Cook asked Steinbrenner to consider him for any job openings within the organization. A few years later, in 1977, the most recognizable owner in sports offered him a scouting position that he held into the 1980s.

Cook’s latest invention, which will debut in January, is a wooden bat with a fiberglass-composite handle that can be used at the high school and college levels.

It’s a direct assault on aluminum bats, which he firmly believes will be obsolete by 2010 due to safety concerns; balls fly off aluminum models much faster than they do traditional wooden bats.

Hoosier Bat Co., based in Valparaiso, makes a full line of wooden baseball bats, including many models made of ash, which are less expensive than maple bats.

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